More on John Milton's 'Vitiated' Serpent
Several days ago, I posted a blog entry on "Milton's Vitiated Serpent" in Paradise Lost, and it received some positive remarks from a few scholars on the Milton List -- Professor Michael Gillum, Professor Richard Strier, and Professor James Rovira -- though one of them, Professor Rovira, also raised objections to my analysis of the term "judgment," so I responded to that on the listserve and have finally gotten around to posting my reply here:
Thanks to Michael Gillum, Richard Strier, and James Rovira for their kind words. I have since proofread and corrected several inglorious typos that they were too polite to mention.My point -- just to iterate for clarity -- is that Milton may have been presenting the serpent as already slithering upon its belly immediately after the successful temptation of Eve. Tainted through its possession by Satan, a spirit of impurity, the serpent is already polluted, vitiated in nature. God's judgment would thus seem more of an evaluation than a sentencing. But a question yet remained, so I posted another comment on the Milton List:
James raises some good points, and I need to look more closely at the issue of judgment. There are two things to consider concerning the term's meaning:
1) two senses of judgment - sentencing vs. evaluationI need to sort these out, but I don't have time now. For the nonce, I can only point to a couple of things to be considered in reflecting on the judgment issue.
2) two processes of judgment - active vs. passive
First, consider the judgment of Adam: "On Adam last thus judgment he pronounced" (10.197) This language looks unambiguous to me, i.e., God is sentencing Adam (and in a rather different manner from "And on the serpent thus his curse let fall" [10.174]).
Second, consider that 9.784-785 tells us that "Back to the thicket slunk / The guilty serpent" and that Old English slincan meant "to creep, crawl (of reptiles)" (OED, Compact Edition, p. 2866) -- and even today, "slink" retains the sense of not entirely upright, of a movement hunched over from the upright position -- and with respect to the "guilty serpent," the choice of "slunk" seems a nod in the direction of "Upon thy belly grovelling thou shalt go" (10.177), as though the serpent is already accursed as Satan's instrument at the moment of the successful temptation.
These are intended merely as food for thought. I do not have a fixed view on my suggestion concerning God's judgment with respect to the serpent.
Much of the "curse" on the serpent simply notes what is already the case about the serpent due to its "vitiated" nature. Arguably, it already goes about on the ground, if "slunk" (9.784) is intended to suggest this point. The only expression that depicts God actively judging the serpent is when he says "I will put enmity" between the serpent and mankind, but let us note that the enmity is also already present in mankind, for Adam has already called it a "false worm" (9.1068), and Eve has already noted the "Fraud in the serpent"' (9.1150) and exculpated herself for having been unaware, in her earlier innocence, of "enmity between" her and the serpent (9.1151).I need to give this issue more thought, but that will have to wait until I have more time . . .
None of this, of course, resolves the tension in Milton's thought between so-called 'ritual' impurity and ethical guilt; Milton's language merely renders that tension less noticeable.